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After Parish in Malawi Asked to Vacate “Muslim territory”, Church Leaders Urge Dialogue

Logo of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi/ Credit: Courtesy Photo

Catholic Church leaders in Malawi are urging dialogue after St. Louis IX the King Mpiri Parish of Mangochi Diocese received an ultimatum to vacate what was described as “Muslim territory”, the Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM) has told ACI Africa.

The leader of the Muslim community in Mosiya village, Machinga in Mangochi Diocese, Yusuf Bwanali, said they demand the Parish to vacate the area after Church-run learning institutions barred female Muslim learners from wearing hijab, the veil worn by Muslim women, which usually covers the ears, head, and chest.

“We are aware of the ultimatum issued by some Muslims in the area where a Catholic school has been closed for almost a year. As the Catholic Church, we don’t believe in ultimatums. Ultimatums have never worked. Dialogue is the only solution,” ECM Secretary General, Fr. Henry Saindi told ACI Africa Thursday, May 20.

As ECM, Fr. Saindi further said, “we are participating in dialogue facilitated by the Public Affairs Committee. We are hopeful that a lasting solution will be found.”

Local media reported that Bwanali issued the ultimatum saying it was “irritating, discriminatory and a disgrace” that female Muslim learners have been barred from wearing hijabs. 

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“Islam is like a culture here. If they (Church leaders) don’t want to respect that then they should leave our community,” Bwanali has been quoted as saying in the May 17 report by Nyasa Times. 

He added that the Muslim faithful in Machinga “will use whatever means to force the Church to move its Parish in the area, especially if it fails to bow down to our demands.”

In the May 20 interview with ACI Africa, ECM’s Secretary General appeals “for peace and patience as the dialogue process is taking place.” 

Malawi’s Minister of Civic Education and National Unity, Timothy Pagonachi Mtambo, has called on members of the Muslim community to be patient as PAC looks into the issue. 

“PAC was tasked to handle this issue and as government, we have full confidence in the capacity of the Committee to address this just like they did on the billboard issue last year. We just need to give them time and support to enable them do their job professionally,” Mtambo has been quoted as saying in a May 18 news report.

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He added, “Let us wait until PAC finalizes its work. I wish to assure our Muslim brothers and sisters that we have not forgotten them, No! We are working very hard to have this matter addressed once for all.”

The controversy around the hijab in Malawi started in November 2019, when two Muslim girls were reportedly barred from attending a government-run school built by the Anglican Church in the town of Balaka for wearing hijabs, sparking violence between Christians and Muslims.

Last year, unknown arsonists torched the headteacher’s office in the Catholic Church-run Mpiri Primary School in Malawi’s District of Machinga after he refused to allow Muslim students to attend class while wearing hijabs.